Martha Nussbaum’s “Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism” seeks to delineate certain essential human characteristics. Nussbaum’s goal is to define the most basic essential human characteristics that cut across culture and time in order to lay out a minimal set of capabilities that should be provided by a liberal government.
She proposes a list of ten capabilities; listed in summary form, these are: living a complete life; adequate health, shelter, and nutrition; avoiding pain and enjoying pleasure; able to think, imagine, and reason; to love, feel, and belong; form an idea of the good and critically plan one’s life; interact in family and society; live with and concern for nature; laugh, play and recreate; live one’s own life in one’s own surroundings (222).
These capabilities are designed toward the end of promoting the flourishing of each person (215), though each one has the option of functioning, or not, in the provided capabilities (221). She argues that the essentials she defines are such that a human life without all of them is less than fully human (222). Crucially, these essentials are not transitive: the lack of one cannot be compensated by the increase in another (231).
My focus here is less on the capabilities per se and more on her epistemology of person. Nussbaum’s is an internalist, historically grounded view of humanity; she specifically disclaims an externalist metaphysics (215). She calls her account a “thick vague theory of the good” (214). By “thick” she intends her work to stand in contrast with John Rawls’ “thin theory of the good” (214).* I understand her term “thick” as signifying that in observing humanity, we have direct epistemic access to real phenomena on which a liberal polity can be normatively grounded. She understands that the essentials determined by internalist observation will be imprecise, or “vague”; that is as it should be, as the capabilities would apply across a broad range of cultures such that people could determine their own best ends (215).
Nussbaum makes two basic observations that ground her internalist view: “first, that we do recognize others as human across many divisions of time and place … [s]econd, we do have a broadly shared general consensus about the features whose absence means the end of a human form of life” (215). Her goal is ultimately to establish an essentialist understanding of humanity on which it is possible to bridge the alterity of the other: in certain key ways the other is like us, regardless how culturally dissimilar she may be. Her argument is that there is a robust, empirically verifiable commonality to all of humanity that can ground a normative capabilities polity.
Clearly her empirical, internalist view must obtain if it is to successfully ground a normative liberal capabilities polity. In support of her argument, I find important parallels to Nussbaum’s epistemology of person in Karol Wojtyla’s Persona e atto. To be sure, the aims of the two works are different. Wojtyla’s goal is to understand the person as revealed in his conscious acts; in this sense, the whole of Wojtyla’s project could support Nussbaum’s capabilities argument. In my view, Wojtyla’s phenomenological realist approach can add significant epistemic support to Nussbaum’s larger capabilities project, for a particular reason that I will expand in a later post.
* Jody Azzouni gives useful definitions of thick and think epistemic access. Thick access is “any form of epistemic access which is robust, can be refined, enables us to track the object (in either sense), and which (certain) properties of the object itself play a role in how we come to know (possibly other) properties of the object is a thick form of epistemic access.’ By this definition, all observations of something are thick” (477). Thin access is more a matter of theory; “if a theory has these virtues, we have good (epistemic) reasons for adopting it, and all the posits that come with it. I shall call this sort of epistemic access to a posit, that it is a quantifier commitment (see footnote 5) of a theory which has Quine’s five virtues, thin epistemic access” (479).
Jody Azzouni, “Thick Epistemic Access: Distinguishing the Mathematical from the Empirical”, The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 94, No. 9 (Sep., 1997), pp. 472-484.
Martha Nussbaum, “Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defense of Aristotelian Essentialism”, Political Theory, Vol. 20, No. 2 (May, 1992), pp. 202-246.
Karol Wojtyla, “Persona e atto” [“Person and Act”], from the anthology Metafisica della persona, G. Reale e T. Styczen, eds., Bompiani, Milano 2003. Any English translations are my own. The available English translation of this work is The Acting Person, which I do not reference.